After being abroad for 40 years, I returned home two years ago to what was being hyped as the “New Nepal”. I wondered: What is this New Nepal and how is it different from Old Nepal?
During the past two years, I traveled extensively to different parts of Nepal, trying to rediscover my own country. Predictably, I found that compared to four decades ago, Nepal has changed in many ways, both good and bad. Here is my synthesis of what I have discovered about the good, bad and ugly dimensions of “New Nepal”.
First, I find that Nepal has gotten worse in six key areas:
Hyper-politicization: More than any other country I know, everything in Nepal seems colored by politics, and especially party politics. Nothing seems off-limit from political party influence and interference. People tend to question the objectivity of independent professionals, assuming that if not overtly, they must be covertly aligned with one party or the other. Such hyper-politicization distorts national priorities, subverts rational decision-making, and erodes people’s faith in our institutions.
Culture of violence & impunity: We used to say that Nepal was a peaceful country, the birth place of Gautam Buddha, where people lived in harmony. That has now become history. We now have a culture of rampant violence and impunity. During the decade of conflict, both sides committed gross violations of human rights and crimes against humanity. Yet there has not been a single conviction for these ghastly crimes. Known perpetrators of heinous crimes walk free, even contest and win elections, are promoted to higher official positions, and continue to threaten their victims and other civilians.
Kidnapping, extortion, intimidation, and criminal behavior are often justified as political activism. The glorification of violence as a legitimate, revolutionary method of political change, initially championed by the Maoists, has now been adopted by many other groups. The police and other security organs of the state are unable to maintain law and order because of criminalization of politics and politicization of criminal acts.
Neglect of economic issues: In a country with so much poverty, unemployment, inequality and lack of basic services, it is astounding to see how little debate there is on economic issues in Nepal’s political discourse. Economic issues are often presented as catchy slogans rather than thoughtful plans in our political parties’ manifestos.
Nepal’s obsession with politics leads to blatant denial of economic realities, misuse of scarce resources, support for highly regressive subsidies in favor of vocal urban constituents rather than the rural poor. Even our business community is guilty of focusing on short-term gains rather than long-term, sustainable benefits. Our vast hydro-power potential remains untapped and we remain in darkness because we are unable to provide investment-friendly incentives.
Though deeply distressing and frustrating at times, I believe many of Nepal’s weaknesses are passing phenomena of a difficult transitional period. The strengths of Nepal, on the other hand, appear to be lasting virtues.
It is assumed that once we sort out our political problems, economics will take care of itself. This has rarely been the case in any post-conflict country.
Passing the buck: Rather than taking responsibility for our own actions or inaction, we Nepalis tend to blame others and find scapegoats for our own weaknesses. Political parties tend to habitually invoke “conspiracies” by their favorite scapegoats whenever things do not go according to their wishes and plans. Blaming foreigners, donors, neighbors, “royalists” is a favorite hobby of many Nepalis.
Focusing on what divides us rather than what unites us: To gain support from certain communities and to radicalize them, the Maoists harped on how this country was sharply divided between feudals, royalists, capitalists, certain dominant upper-caste groups and agents of foreigners and imperialist, all considered oppressors and pratigamis. On the other hand, self-proclaimed agragami forces claimed to champion the interests of the oppressed peasants and proletariat. Far from being progressive, this divisive approach is actually backward-looking, with an obsessive focus on rectifying the injustices of the past, rather than building a brighter future.
Much of the rationale behind the proposals for ethnicity-based federalism and identity politics arise out of this divisive, backward-looking perspective rather than trying to harness the richness of our wonderful diversity.
Cynicism as Nepal’s new religion: We have become a secular republic, but seem to have adopted cynicism as our new national religion. People have become extremely cynical, especially about political leaders, parties, national institutions, and even about democracy itself. It is especially sad to see young people becoming cynical at a time when they should be full of hope, with a sense of purpose, and drive for excellence.
Despite these worrying concerns, I see in Nepal many hopeful trends that augur well for the country’s future. Here are seven virtues which I believe will be the saving grace for New Nepal:
Women’s empowerment & people’s awareness: Traveling around the country, I am amazed how aware people are of what is going on in the country. The level of education is rising. People’s awareness about their rights is growing. It is most inspiring to observe great empowerment of women – not just young and educated ones, but even the middle-aged and still illiterate women – are amazingly aware of their rights and daring to speak up forcefully and fearlessly.
Listening to rural women in their Mothers’ Clubs, the Paralegal Women’s Groups, and various Women’s Federations and cooperatives, has convinced me that we need not worry about any form of authoritarianism taking deep roots in this country, as they simply will not allow it or tolerate it for long.
Thriving mass media: Ever since the 1990 people’s movement, Nepal’s independent mass media has been flourishing and thriving, and has generally defied attempts to intimidate and manipulate it.
Nepal has been a pioneer in community-based independent FM radio stations, and thanks to the penetration of the media and the mobile phones, people all over the country now have access to diverse viewpoints. Unfettered freedom of press, of course, offers opportunity for propaganda, and even hateful messages and sensational news. But it is balanced by countervailing viewpoints. No future regime is likely to succeed in regimenting the Nepali people and snatching away the free spirit of the media which will be a strong bulwark for a pluralistic democracy in Nepal.
Real progress in human development: Many Nepalis tend to make sweeping statements about how nothing good ever happened under previous regimes, and Nepal has not made any progress at all. That is patently untrue. In terms of the Millennium Development Goals, Nepal is actually on track to achieve quite a few of the goals – such as reduction of child mortality, maternal mortality, access to drinking water supply, basic education, community forestry, etc.
Certainly the 10-year civil war retarded Nepal’s progress that was beginning to pick up momentum after democracy was restored in 1990. But even in the middle of the conflict, Nepal continued to make progress in human development. With peace and a more inclusive democracy, we can expect Nepal to regain and accelerate its development momentum.
Vitality of non-governmental sector & private sector development: There are many examples of impressive community-based development activities, private-sector led entrepreneurship, and NGO-led innovations in Nepal, ranging from micro-hydel projects, micro-finance schemes, telecommunications, tourism, education, health and other sectors. To unleash further progress, Nepal will have to find ways to promote more effective public-private partnerships, avoid being overly state-dominated and centralized, and allow private enterprise and community-based developments to flourish with the state providing a conducive regulatory framework.
Positive potential of Non-Resident Nepalis: While we lament the brain-drain of many educated Nepalis, and ordinary workers going abroad because of difficult economic circumstances at home, in the long-run Nepali diaspora is likely to be a powerful engine for Nepal’s development. During the decade of conflict, remittances by Nepali workers abroad sustained our rural economy. In future, we can expect NRNs to be not just sources of remittances; but dynamic agents of social change and innovation n Nepal.
Goodwill of international community: Nepal continues to enjoy the friendship and support of many international development partners. Except in the imagination of our conspiracy theorists, Nepal has no external enemies and plenty of friends with tremendous goodwill.
If we Nepalis can put our house in order, and come up with some sensible, ambitious reconstruction and development plans, we can expect generous support and solidarity from the international community. Nepal can also benefit enormously from being an economic bridge between China and India.
Nepali genius for compromise & co-existence: In Nepal’s villages and local communities, the spirit of social harmony and solidarity is still very strong, despite divisive provocations fueled by opportunistic politicians and radical “revolutionaries” of various types. People are able to distinguish between genuine desire for social justice, inclusion and the need for change, from xenophobic or ethnocentric excesses and political extremism.
At the national level too, even the much despised political parties have shown the maturity to compromise and co-exist, and find a workable accommodation with their political rivals. While many negotiations verge on brinkmanship, and hardly anything happens on scheduled time, in the end things do get sorted out, and the worst-case scenarios are avoided. Nepalis seem to have perfected the art of compromise and co-existence, even trying to extract something positive from out-dated ideologies.
I conclude from this analysis of our vices and virtues that the combined power of Nepal’s positive virtues far outweighs the curse of our vices. Though deeply distressing and frustrating at times, I believe many of Nepal’s weaknesses are passing phenomena of a difficult transitional period. The strengths of Nepal, on the other hand, appear to be lasting virtues. As the level of people’s education grows, and as democracy takes deeper roots, Nepalis can be expected to shun and overcome our vices, and harness our profound positive virtues to build a genuinely progressive and prosperous New Nepal.
( Writer is a former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations.)
Publication Source: www.myrepublica.com, Published On: 2010-04-20